Storytelling with Ian McCaig: wants, needs, and burning bridges

About 8 years ago I started writing my epic fantasy novel. (As one does.)

I loved writing character sketches, scene ideas, doing research. But when it came to stringing it all together into, you know, an actual STORY, well that proved to be a bit tricky.  So I just kept creating character sketches, scene ideas, doing research. And no longer just for that initial epic fantasy novel, either. They ranged all over the place; through alternate histories, speculative futures, the magical here and now. But none of them ever got out the door. I didn’t know how to turn any of them into an actual story.

Life goes on. I pursue a career as an illustrator and my story starts and character ideas go on the back burner.

Last month, at the Illustration Masters Class I had the chance to sit down with Ian McCaig. In an unexpected twist of the conversation, Ian asked why I wasn’t making a comic out of one of my own stories. At my hesitation, he offered to help me take one of my ideas and outline it into complete story. (My initial response was something embarrassingly unintelligible. Once I collected my jaw off the floor I said “um, SURE.”)

The very first question Ian asked, for every character idea I pitched to him. was: “What does your character WANT”. (A bit of a tricky question, I found.) Once we had established what my character wanted Ian used a three act structure to help me nail down the plot line with pivotal steps strategically placed along the way.* He used Star Wars as his example (of course) and so I’ll do like wise.

Okay. Here we go:**

Act 1.

in the first few pages, the audience needs to know the answers to these questions:

~Who is the story about?

~What does he/she WANT?

~What are the obstacles?

Thinking of Star Wars: it’s a story about a boy who wants to save a princess from the Evil Empire.

So the next question is:

~What’s the plan?

Star Wars: Luke meets a Obi Wan who has the plan to go to Alderaan. BUT… the boy balks. the plan is outside his comfort zone.


~A bridge must be burned.

A point of no return. This can be a conscious choice or created from external pressures. In Star Wars, Luke’s aunt and uncle are killed by the empire. There is nothing left for him on Tatooine. He sets off with Obi Wan and his Plan.

Act 2.

Now “The Plan” is in action. Fun stuff, exciting stuff, happening stuff…. but, basically filler stuff.  Ian called this part of the story “smoke and mirrors“.  Entertaining (and important), but mostly prepping for the climax in Act 3. However, to keep the story going through all this filler stuff, there needs to be:

~ A “Flip” about halfway through act 2.

Something that alters the progress of the plan. Obi Wan dies. It doesn’t stop the plan, but requires special dealing with.

And you keep going…


Act 3.

~The highest high of the story.

Everything seems to be coming together the way it should. You THINK you are safe. Luke has saved the princess and successfully brought her to the rebel base.


Immediately following the highest high, comes:

~The lowest low.

There was a tracking device on the spaceship. Now EVERYONE is gonna die.

This was the point which Ian drove home: all the smoke and mirrors from act 2, all the filler stuff, the exciting stuff, was really only leading up to this moment. The lowest low, where we learn the whole point of the story. Where our hero has to come face to face with a decision:

~The choice between what our hero WANTS, and what our hero NEEDS.

Luke wants to save the princess. But what he needs, is to become a Jedi. (Which choice launches the next two movies in the trilogy).


So. Ian had me dust off a few of my old character sketches. Together we picked one and walked her through these questions: What does she WANT? What are the OBSTACLES? What’s the PLAN? What is the BRIDGE that needs BURNING? What is the midpoint FLIP? What is the Highest HIGH? What is the Lowest LOW? And, most importantly, the discovery revealed at the very end; What does this character NEED? Basically, Ian helped me get my character out the door. Finally.

Now I have the rough skeleton of a story line and am ready to start filling in the gaps. Fleshing out scenes. Finding the plot holes. Trying to not get bogged down in it all. (Everything seemed so clear when talking it out with Ian…) It’s still a tricky process for me, not to mention creating the sequential art for the story. But it’s a start. And I’m excited.

Thank you, Ian.

*Obviously, not the only way to structure a story. But it was a quick and convenient method for nailing out an outline in under an hour.

** Ian also made this method the subject of his lecture later in the week. What I have shown here is culled from memory and hastily scribbled notes, any mistakes and inaccuracies are mine.

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  1. Wendy Wagner
    12/07/2012 at 8:43 am Permalink

    Loving this blog post as I work through my current outlining phase!

  2. Anne Zanoni
    12/07/2012 at 1:02 pm Permalink

    Brilliant. Reminds me of David Morrell’s book covering these topics. Using Star Wars drives it home most excellently.

    Well done!

  3. Judith van Praag
    14/07/2012 at 1:30 pm Permalink

    Wonderful, what a gift Galen to be treated to a one-on-one with Ian. Before focusing on writing I was a stage designer, and for some reason the 3-Act plot offered, from the p.o.v. of a cartoonist is more clear than ever. I think Ian’s “smoke and mirrors” did the trick for me. And as a matter of fact, I see I treated the characters in my 2010 NaNoWriMo just right. So thanks for sharing and the push to revisit and finish!


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